All posts by msubrahmanyam

Conor McGregor: Rich, Brave, and Totally Screwed

Conor McGregor is a brave man. Conor McGregor is a smart man. Conor McGregor is going to get his ass whupped six ways to Saturday if and when he steps in the Las Vegas T-Mobile Arena on August 26 to fight Floyd Mayweather.

That’s not a knock on Conor, the same way it isn’t insulting to say that I would probably lose in a sprint against Usain Bolt. It’s simply a fact of life. There are several reasons to believe that Conor is going to get outclassed in the ring come August 25, all of which stem from the fact that, as confirmed by UFC President Dana White, the upcoming match will be a pure boxing match. Boxing presents insurmountable disadvantages to Conor which will, in the end, allow Floyd to either make quick work of him, or cruise to a decision victory.
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The first of these disadvantages comes simply from the time spent practicing the sport. Regardless of whether Conor McGregor is a striker or not, his style has developed to defend kicks, elbows and takedowns as well as punches. His style does not even resemble that of a classic boxing stance, the sort which has proven to be the most fundamental of requirements in boxing. Instead, Conor’s usual stance, lacadasical, his feet held apart and arms held far out from his chin in a manner that reminds one of old bare knuckle boxers, is ill suited to the boxing ring, where heavy gloves and less space mean that one has more of an advantage in holding their hands closer to block incoming punches. This kind of a disadvantage is not exactly a damning fact, as one would imagine that Conor’s preparation would allow him to make the adjustments needed to settle into a more standard stance. It does, however, highlight just how out of his element McGregor will be in a boxing ring, and how lacking he is in traditional boxing experience.

What should cause McGregor some concern, however, is that one of his signature features as a fighter will also be rudely ripped from his arsenal during this bout, namely, his ability to pressure. While Conor’s reach allows him to punish lesser strikers from stepping in against him, Conor’s main tool to pressure opponents backwards has always come from his kicks. His front snap kick to the body, along with his round kicks and heel kicks allow him to force his opponents to either come towards him and get countered, or move backwards towards the cage. We saw the results of what happens when such pressure fails in both of Conor’s fights against Nate Diaz, whose inhuman chin and conditioning, combined with his longer reach allowed him to step in against McGregor. Against Floyd, McGregor will no longer be able to deploy his kicks, and will therefore be forced to pressure with his hands. Floyd’s reputation as a defensive genius also means that Conor might find himself in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar position of being the lead fighter, rather than being able to sit and wait for the counter. Therefore, when in the lead, Conor will be in unfamiliar territory with his main pressure weapons removed from his arsenal. Next, we will look at the fight on the counter.

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Conor McGregor’s best work has almost unfailingly happened on the counter. Just because his opponents were the ones with their backs to the cage, does not mean that McGregor initiated the majority of the exchanges. In both the Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez knockouts, Conor waited for his opponents to commit to their punches before catching them leaning in with his rocket of a left hand. Even before the UFC, as we can see from his fight with Ivan Buchinger, McGregor’s bread and butter involved pressuring opponents into the cage, before evading a few of their punches and then cracking them on the counter with his left. What makes McGregor good is not the complexity of his meta-game, but rather the simplicity of it, and his mastery over the skills needed to execute it. However, we have seen Conor wilt under pressure when he cannot execute this game. Nate Diaz put a hurting on Conor when he was able to deny McGregor his ability to pressure. Chad Mendes, before he wilted, was able to give Conor serious trouble by executing takedowns when he was pressured. Even in his second fight with Diaz, which McGregor won by a close decision, Conor found himself having to jog away from Diaz in order to avoid getting overwhelmed. Despite that, he was caught in a nasty position in the third round against the cage, where many foes of the elder Diaz brother, Nick, met their end. Had Nate Diaz been able to fix Conor in place, there is little doubt he could have pressured Conor for the finish.

In the ring with Floyd, Conor may find himself unable to pressure his opponent, given Floyd’s defensive prowess and Conor’s lack of kicking opportunity. This means that Floyd will have the opportunity to pressure Conor, and if he wins exchanges on the counter, the smaller ring offers far less of a chance for McGregor to keep his back off the ropes. Floyd will not make the same cage-cutting mistakes that Diaz did in his second fight, and could easily find himself with a timid Conor on the ropes in front of him. In this case, McGregor will be hard pressed to get himself off the cage and back into the fight.
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The x-factor, as it always is with McGregor, is KO power. However, the boxing glove, when compared to the UFC glove, is designed to cause less knockouts. Furthermore, Floyd has remained lucid through his last 49 fights, and I am unconvinced he is not going to start taking naps now.

All of these factors indicate that Conor McGregor has talked himself into the biggest, most valuable embarrassment of his life. This is going to be a freakshow fight, the likes of which are rarely seen out side of Japan (Rizin Fighting Federation once pitted a pro-wrestling grandma against giant female jiu jitsu practitioner Gabi Garcia). That said, everybody needs a freakshow once in a while, and Conor McGregor has dreamed into reality the biggest freakshow fight in the history of two people punching each other in the face. The real victory for both men is that it’s going to rain down dollars on ‘Money’ and ‘Notorious’, so we needn’t worry about the sport. This one’s about the spectacle, brought into being by the swaggering trash talk of a mad Irishman. So as much as I know Floyd Mayweather has every advantage going into that boxing ring, I will be rooting for Conor and I sure as hell will be tuning in to check out their $600 million dance on August 26.

Dana White: You Either Got It Or You Don’t

In a recent episode of his podcasts, ex-UFC star and current Bellator Light Heavyweight Chael Sonnen described Dana White by saying, “Fight promotion isn’t something you can major in in college. You can’t buy a textbook for that. You either got it or you don’t and Dana White- man, Dana White has got it.”

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White (left) and Sonnen (right)

Now, Dana White is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a popular figure in Mixed Martial Arts. Plenty of fans and fighters alike will rightly criticise him for underpaying fighters, twisting the truth for the sake of the promotion, and occasionally being a little too brash on Twitter. However, Dana White is still a figure. Indeed, in his operational style, Dana White has always been more of a Vince McMahon than an Adam Silver.

Whether the fighting world likes it or not, Dana White has always been the face of the UFC, the physical representation of the organization as a whole. In fact, at times, it would seem that Dana was all-powerful, deciding which fighters stay and which fighters go based on a whim. Shows like “Looking for a Fight” and “Dana White VLOGs” brought the promotion president front and center in the minds of MMA fans (not that he had ever been anywhere else). White’s brash comments and candid media appearances earned him a reputation for being a loud mouthed, brash president. In fact, White had no qualms about airing his grievances about any employees and promotions. One thing about Dana White, if he put together a bad night of fights, he would be the first one to call it out. All of these characteristics can tell the perceptive fan one thing about Dana White, just about the only thing that really matters: White loves fights. It is precisely this love that has allowed him to take a business that was worth about $40 million in the hole and sell it for $4 billion. It is precisely because Dana White loves fights that he could promote them so effectively, and that he could continue to run a business at the highest level after nearly 20 years on the job. Dana White gained a few thousand pounds, lost all his hair, and is still going because he loves the sport that he helped build. Make no mistake; if you don’t have Dana White, you don’t have MMA. It’s as simple as that.

So, as an MMA fan, it doesn’t matter whether you think he should pay his fighters more, or aim to be less misleading to fans, or more politically correct on Twitter. If you’re a fight fan, you love Dana White because, yeah, he can be kind of a meathead sometimes but man, Dana White gets it. He understands why fight fans are FIGHT fans. Dana White is the UFC personified. He knows that it doesn’t matter if he’s a little vulgar or rough around the edges. He’s raw, he’s real, and he gives us what we love because he loves it too. Today, when the UFC is going through major structural changes due to its sale to WME-IMG, it is possible that we may be seeing the end of the Dana White era of the UFC. If rumours of how WME-IMG want to present the UFC are true, we may soon see Dana White be replaced by a stuffed suit who gives press-friendly conferences and maintains a politically correct, pseudo-robotic Twitter account. However, that will be a sad day indeed, because the one thing most needed for the job above all, is passion for the sport, and Dana White has it in spades.

Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson: In Search of Red Panties

Oh yeah. It’s finally happening. After being arranged and then cancelled twice in the past, Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov has been made to happen for the interim Lightweight Championship on March 4, 2017. Two of the baddest men on the planet at 155 pounds will go at it in the Octagon for five rounds of five-minutes to determine who will be the interim lightweight champion and, of course, the recipient of one of Conor McGregor’s famous ‘Red Panty Nights’.

The background to Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson is so perfect that the WWE’s writers could not have crafted a better story. Tony Ferguson is a skinny, lanky lightweight who has been on an unprecedented nine-fight win streak in the UFC, while Nurmagomedov, the Russian Sambo champion and master grappler, is 8-0 in his fights in the UFC. In fact, Nurmagomedov has never lost an MMA match, with a total record of 24-0 in MMA bouts. The first time they were scheduled to fight, Nurmagomedov was forced to pull out due to injury, and the second time they were scheduled to fight, Ferguson pulled out for the same reasons. So, at long last, the matchup has been made and the stage has been set. What can we expect to see when these two monsters clash in the Octagon?

Striking

In the realm of striking, to the untrained eye, it would seem that Ferguson can crush Nurmagomedov easily. After all, Khabib doesn’t ever seem to throw a straight punch, opting for wide, looping punches instead. Tony, on the other hand, uses his skinny, lanky frame to maximum effect, forcing his opponents to stay at range and pressuring them while moving forward.

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In the above gif, we can see Ferguson pressure his opponent, fellow pressure fighter and former UFC champion Rafael Dos Anjos, utilising his superior reach to maintain distance with his opponent, while also creating angles in order to land his shots. The gif also gives us an idea of Ferguson’s versatile striking game, which includes a variety of kicks and punches.

Too many analysts seem far too quick to dismiss Khabib’s ability in the striking department. It is undoubtable that if one were to look at the skills displayed on their own, Ferguson would have the standing advantage. However, Khabib’s striking is practiced and effective in getting his opponent to do what he wants them to do. Khabib’s main goal is to pressure his opponent into moving back against the cage so that he can more fully utilise his takedown game. The cage is especially useful for Khabib when fighting high level wrestlers or grapplers, as it allows him to pin his opponents and work on a takedown without having to worry too much about his opponent trying to escape. In this sense, Khabib’s striking does exactly what it was built to do.

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As shown in the gif above, Khabib’s wild strikes and fast forward movement causes his opponents to retreat straight backwards. As a result, opponents often find themselves with their back against the cage and Khabib around their legs.

Therefore, we can say that one of the crucial factors in the striking exchanges will be which fighter is able to pressure the other one more effectively. While Ferguson’s striking ability feeds off of his pressure, Khabib simply wants to pressure his opponents to get them against the cage. Here, he can force them into a clinch, where he can work his myriad takedowns to bring his dominant grappling into play.

Obviously, one could go into much more detail about the specific weapons each fighter uses in order to achieve these main goals (from Khabib’s hooks to Ferguson’s straight punches) but suffice to say, the success of either fighter’s stand-up abilities can be measured in whether they are able to push their opponent backwards. In this sense, one can guage who is applying the pressure on who within the fight.

 

Grappling

If the striking between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson creates an interesting interplay of competing and contrasting skills, it could be argued that the clash of their grappling skills are even more exciting. Until this point, Khabib Nurmagomedov has looked almost flawless in his grappling performances. He has maintained positional dominance whenever the fight hits the canvas, and seems to catch his opponents off guard with his grappling strength. In his fight against Abel Trujillo, an accomplished wrestler in his own right, Khabib set the record for the most takedowns in a UFC fight, bringing his opponent to the canvas a total of 23 times

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As seen above, Khabib maintains his positional dominance while hitting a phenomenal suplex takedown on Trujillo. For any other fighter, this would be their number one highlight of the night, but for Khabib, this was just one of the 23 masterful ways he drowned his opponent against the mat. One of the beautiful things about Nurmagomedov’s takedowns is that he doesn’t land in the traditional jiu-jitsu guard position like most other wrestlers. Instead, Nurmagomedov’s takedowns put him in more dominant positions, thus bypassing the guard, one of the most dangerous positions for grappler on top. Once he has taken his opponent down, Nurmagomedov opts to maintain positional dominance rather than to attempt submissions and hit his opponent while they are pressed against the floor.

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One of the best examples of this style is from Khabib’s most recent fight (the gif above) where he beat up Michael Johnson from dominant ground positions for three rounds while whispering in his ear that he should give up. In this sense, Khabib’s grappling has not been challenged enough, and is the main secret to his undefeated streak. His ability to control opponents and beat them up on the ground is absolutely unprecedented. However, Fergusons grappling has some interesting features that could pose a serious problem to Nurmagomedov.

The first unique feature is Ferguson’s approach to defending takedowns. If Khabib is all about maintaining positional dominance in order to land effective strikes while forgoing traditional submission attempts, Ferguson will purposely put himself in bad positions in order to avoid an immediate threat.

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As seen in the above gif, in order to avoid being taken down, Ferguson tries to roll out of the double leg. This is a risky move because being caught in the wrong moment, could mean he could have given up his back, and be in a much worse position than if he got taken down. However, this willingness to put himself in bad positions adds to Ferguson’s unpredictability and shows his confidence in his grappling skills. In fact, Ferguson has displayed slick submission skills, as he is known for his use of the D’Arce choke. What makes the D’Arce choke and specifically Ferguson’s D’Arce choke so unique is the variety of positions in which it can be applied. The choke can be applied from a standing position, but can also be applied from traditionally disadvantageous positions such as from a under side control or from the bottom of half guard. As a result, Khabib will have to deal with the constant threat of Ferguson’s jiu jitsu, and prove that he can maintain positional dominance against an opponent known for their offense off of their back.

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In the above gif, it can be seen how this poses a problem for a wrestling-heavy style like Khabib’s. If Khabib ducks his head in for a takedown and isn’t careful, Ferguson can lock in the D’Arce and finish the fight. This means that Khabib will be restricted to upper body takedowns if he plays it safe. This also means that Ferguson is a major threat to Khabib in the area in which he is most dominant, namely, his grappling.

Conclusion

Forget the 24-0 record and the 9-fight win streak and the 2 cancelled fights for a second. All things considered, Ferguson vs. Khabib is not just an interesting fight because of the pre-fight context. Instead, the two fighters’ skills compete and contrast naturally to create an interesting dynamic for the fight. Just like any other fight, we never know the outcome until the fight is over. Khabib could come out with a spinning headkick that knocks Ferguson out in the first round, but we can only comment on the skills the fighters have displayed and the challenges they pose to their opponents. Usually, this is sufficient analysis to give us an idea of where the fight will take place or how the fight might look. With that being said, there is too much to cover in any one fight for an analysis to ever truly be complete. We did not look closely at the strategy of Khabib’s winging hooks or at Ferguson’s subtle feints, among other strategies within the fight; instead, a basic framework has been provided with which anyone can watch and analyse the fight. Who is moving forward? Who is taking it to the ground? Who is on top? Is Khabib getting trapped in submission attempts, or is Ferguson being pinned to the floor? How does Ferguson deal with Khabib’s unorthodox striking pressure? How does Khabib deal with Ferguson’s? With this basic understanding of the fight and the fighters, the hope is that it lays bare just the surface of MMA strategy. Regardless of whether the whole world was watching as if it was a McGregor fight, one can still tune in to see an artful display of skill, strength and the human spirit at UFC 209 on March 4th, 2017.

Dominick Cruz is the Greatest Bantamweight of All Time

Dominick Cruz’s defeat in UFC 207 came as a surprise to many in the MMA community, as every aspect from the opponent to the fact that he lost by decision (a victory method for which he was known) shocked a majority of fight analysts. Even analysts at the highest and most prominent levels of the game found the result of the bout to be unprecedented. Indeed, Cody Garbrandt, a young, undefeated prospect from Team Alpha Male, a camp that produced fighters like Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez, was, in hindsight, egregiously overlooked. Yet in his last 13 fights, Cruz had never shown any signs of being outfought or outmatched. He seemed to be light-years ahead of everyone in his division, even after suffering three separate ACL tears. After nearly five years of being sidelined due to injuries, Cruz was able to come back to professional fighting and put a beating on Takeya Mizugaki in 2014, granting him the opportunity to regain the title he never lost from former Alpha Male prospect TJ Dillashaw, who many believed was the one to beat Cruz. Still, after 5 rounds, Dominick Cruz seemed to prove that he was undoubtedly still the best 135 pounder to ever grace the octagon when he won a close split decision victory over Dillashaw. Following this victory, Cruz fought his old rival, founder of Team Alpha Male and the only man to ever best him in a fight, Urijah Faber. For five rounds, Cruz put a beating on Faber that went unanswered, dominating both on the ground and on the feet. Indeed, Cruz seemed unstoppable. This was the third fight between these two rivals, and Cruz ended the trilogy with two wins against the Bantamweight legend. Faber would retire after his very next fight, where he picked apart and destroyed Brad Pickett, proving that Cruz’s two victories were a testament to his skill as opposed to Urijah’s lack thereof. Yet, none of these victories, accolades or achievements clarified Cruz’s status as the G.O.A.T. in the bantamweight division as clearly as his fight on in UFC 207 did.

Because of the stellar year Cruz has had in addition to his 13-fight win streak and his decade without a loss, one could be forgiven for assuming Cruz would stomp Garbrandt. Garbrandt, a young knockout artist whose fights in the UFC had all concluded with a quick rush forward to finish his opponents, didn’t seem to have much of a chance against the only man to ever hold the lineal UFC Bantamweight Championship. After all, Garbrandt seemed to be the type of fighter that Cruz is so famous for toying with. A fighter won’t get knocked out if they don’t get hit, and out of Cruz’s opponents, only Demetrious Johnson (the current #1 P4P fighter in the world) landed more than 30% of the strikes he attempted. Additionally, the fact that Garbrandt was from Team Alpha Male, a gym that had gone up against Cruz and come up short over the course of five separate fights contributed to the likelihood of Cruz’s victory for many viewers. Yet, as we saw on Friday, these factors worked positively for Garbrandt rather than against him. His quick finishes meant that we had seen little of his true potential. By training at Team Alpha Male, Garbrandt was able to draw on the experiences of his teammates and use the game plans of all the fighters who fought Cruz in the past. What we saw was in UFC 207 was not only the product of Garbrandt’s skill, but also the repeated hard work of Team Alpha Male. Cruz found out quickly that fighter intel becomes one of the biggest drawbacks of being at the top of the sport as long as Cruz had been.

Into the third round, it was clear that Cruz was losing the fight. He found himself out-fought and out-predicted at every turn, his patterns laid bare by Garbrandt’s dodges and counterpunches. Garbrandt forced Cruz to take the lead, predicted his every move and countered him in almost every position, always just out of range. Garbrandt got Cruz to overcommit and used Cruz’s intricate footwork to his advantage, in order to counterpunch effectively. For the first time in his career, Dominick Cruz was not the matador, but the bull. By the fourth round, it was clear that Cruz had to win by knockout or submission, a feat he only achieved once in his career, against a man he was currently unable to hit. Garbrandt began taunting Cruz, dropping him with hooks and laughing at him. It was surreal to see the champion, the best in the world, so thoroughly humiliated. By the fifth, it was past the point where most fighters, even professional fighters of the highest calibre, would stop trying and try to minimize the damage they took. Not Cruz. Cruz began to throw everything and the kitchen sink at Garbrandt. He attempted flying knees, spinning backfists, feints, hooks, head kicks and anything else he could think of. He was a violent whirling dervish borne of desperation. Nothing landed. It didn’t matter. Cruz kept throwing. When the final bell sounded, there was no doubt as to who had won the match. Dominick Cruz would face the defeat that had destroyed champions like Ronda Rousey, and left Jose Aldo sobbing in his locker room.

Then something magical happened. At the post fight media press conference, Cruz showed up, dark glasses on and suit perfect. The first question was from Luke Thomas, a well known MMA journalist. Having seen many dominant champions lose their belts over the past 2 years, Luke knew to use kid gloves. He said, “Dominick, I know this is a really tough night for you-“

“Why is it tough?” Cruz shot back, before Luke could finish his question.

Luke’s answer was noticeably quieter. “Because you lost”, he said, unsure of how to approach the situation or cushion it in softer language.

“This isn’t tough, this is life.”, replied Dominick. That set the tone for the rest of the conference. The press repeatedly handed him softballs; “Were you at 100%? Do you feel you won? What about an instant rematch?” He went on to dismiss questions that he wasn’t at 100%, or make excuses about his opponent a la Conor McGregor. He didn’t clamor for an instant rematch like Jose Aldo, nor did he hide from the media like Ronda Rousey. Cruz stood right in front of the media and told the world he lost. He then began to analyze the fight in his head, right in front of the media.

“Cody controlled the distance, he caught me in transitions, he read my patterns.” Then he began to make adjustments; “I could have let him lead more, I could have tweaked this or that.”

Just like that, Cruz was finding ways to make the fight closer, to make it harder for Garbrandt.

After Cruz won his title for the second time, an MMA journalist asked him if it was the greatest moment in his life. He replied, “The greatest moment of my life was when I realized I don’t need a belt to be happy.”

Despite a tiny blemish in a storied fighting career, Dominick Cruz is still the Greatest Bantamweight of All Time, and Cruz Control ain’t going anywhere.